by Gail Baker
SETTING THE STAGE: AN IMPERFECT LIFE
By the time I reached junior high, I’d had my fill of Christians and Christianity. Growing up in Columbia, South Carolina, smack in the center of Bible Belt country, many targeted me for conversion. The last unfortunate episode occurred when my friend Bill and I returned to my house after a date.
Parked in the driveway in his brand new ruby red Ford Mustang, I took in the aroma of new leather and peered at high-tech widgets on the dash. Silver streaks extended the sides of the body, making it look poised for takeoff.
I said, “Congratulations, Bill. The seats are just gorgeous—so soft and luxurious.”
Trying to hide peacock pride, he pursed his lips, saying, “Yeah, I think I’ll keep this one better than the last one. Anyway, I’m glad you like it.” After a long pause, he cleared his throat and stammered, “Gail, I need to talk to you about something very serious. I’ve known you for a long time, and you know how much I care about you, so I’ll just come right out and say it.”
Looking at him curiously, I asked, “Bill, what in the world is it?”
He said, “Well, it’s about your salvation.”
An immediate barrier came between us, and I snarled, “I just can’t believe you!”
Defensively, he said, “I know how much Judaism means to you and your family, but the fact is if you died tomorrow, Gail, you would be in Hell. Unless you repent and accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you will burn for an eternity.”
If he had any genuine distress over my supposed destiny, he didn’t show it. To make matters worse, he belonged to Forest Lake Country Club, at the time, a bastion of anti-Semitism and elitism. Usually, with the mention of Hell, I stopped these conversations short, but this time I took a different tack.
“Listen, Bill, do you believe Jesus is coming back?” I asked.
“Yes, of course, I do.”
“Do you think He could come back next week or next month?” I asked.
“Well, yes. He told us to expect Him anytime, but what’s your point?” he asked.
I continued, “Do you realize that if He comes soon, he couldn’t even walk through the back door of your country club?”
“That’s ridiculous,” he said. “He’d be welcome at Forest Lake anytime. After all, He started my church.”
“Bill, I think you’re missing something here. Jesus was Jewish,” I said.
He blurted out, “Well if that’s true, He must have converted. I’m not stupid, Gail. I know Jesus was a Christian.”
“No,” I said, emphatically. “In fact, He was a Jew, and He remained one until the day He died. What’s more, His followers were too. You may have even heard of them—Matthew, Mark, and John. But don’t worry, Bill—you wouldn’t recognize Jesus if He stared you right in the face. He’d look more like Yasser Arafat than that blasted blond picture on your Sunday School wall.”
His face blanched, and his eyes turned bloodshot. Ignoring any semblance of church-like decorum, he raged, “Damnit, Gail, you don’t know what the Hell you’re talking about.”
I wasted no time in getting out of his car. He slammed his foot on the accelerator and sped away faster than I could say, “Jesus Christ.” I heard his tires screeching several blocks away, satisfied that I’d never have trouble with him again.
I have always abhorred a theology in which God says, “If you don’t love me, I will torture you.”
My knowledge of the church’s history of forced conversions gave the word “proselytize” an evil ring. I will never understand how nominal acceptance of Jesus, something that seems as trivial as choosing the right door at the fun fair, could serve as a litmus test for Heaven. Wanting no part of a God who devalued freedom of conscience, I grew up convinced of a huge divide between Christian and Jewish values.
Eighteen years later, I walked towards the back entrance of our neighborhood mall. I tightened my parka and watched as the last vestige of fall color—vermilion, rust, and yellow leaves—danced and swirled to the ground. Inside, I made my way through the crowds and adjusted my hood to disguise my profile. Then, as though I did it every day, I crossed the threshold into my first Christian bookstore.
The store had the appearance of a cheerful Hallmark card shop with signs indicating directions—Bibles, devotionals, commentaries, biographies, and guides to moral living. I saw language like “steps to salvation,” “the four spiritual laws,” and “how to find peace with God.” These simplistic notions flew in the face of my secular analytical upbringing. Having recently studied the Holocaust, I had little tolerance for tidy resolutions about who deserved Heaven or Hell. Though I felt safe from prying eyes, technically I should have donned Special Forces gear or a breastplate of armor—such was the nature of the spiritual battle I had just embarked upon.
A year prior to this, Michael, our nine-year-old son, developed signs of serious emotional problems. The sudden onset of insidious, impossible to manage symptoms confounded Steve and me. His attitude turned sullen and belligerent, and he refused to cooperate with chores, complete homework, or comply with school rules.
An unknown monstrous force had changed our lovely boy into someone we hardly recognized. Over the next thirty years, he struggled valiantly to overcome depression, anorexia, bulimia, and drug addiction. In the wake of his long travail, our family experienced every ravaging, grievous emotion imaginable.
With the onset of his depression, my healthy motherly love devolved into disabling enmeshment. The atmosphere surrounding his profound sadness became my quiet obsession–possessing me and rendering me practically senseless. A dark dust of melancholia permeated my very marrow, invading every pore of my being.
In my co-dependent state, I believed for a fact that I could detect his mood by the tone and color of his skin. I marked every nuance of his eyes as they fixated on an unknowable and unfathomable realm. I would have gladly traded places with him if I could have.
Despite receiving professional help, his problems lingered. Every time I heard negative feedback from teachers or other mothers, I felt helpless and guilt-ridden. Acutely aware of the fragility of life, I lived in constant fear of great trouble around the corner. Though, at first, my emotions bordered on hysteria, they soon vanished into an anonymous, glacier-like realm. Constant worry, like an ache from an amputated limb, left me in a state of blind resignation. Eventually, when the swell in my heart and the lump in my throat disappeared, I went through the motions of life, a ghostly figure skulking.
My poignant, bittersweet devotion forced me through a tunnel to the outer edges of reality. With eyes shut tight and breath suspended, I emerged from the chaos unscathed, trying to discern just how I managed to survive. As it happened, God ruled over the lesser light of night.
The First Day: Spirit’s Peaking
The morning began at 5:00 A.M., when sirens penetrating the night jarred me out of a sound sleep. The foreboding shrills, like birds of prey, hovered closer and closer before stopping at a house nearby. I heard the faint sound of weeping, loud voices shouting directions, and, finally, the slow thrumming of the ambulance as it idled back onto the street and into the dark.
Looking out the window, I could barely detect our newly planted birch trees in the dark. A burst of air from the windowsill indicated another frigid day, so I tucked the comforter snuggly around Steve who slept soundly.
Whatever the outcome of the emergency, my neighbors would no doubt have wounds from the aftermath of shock. My experience with trauma indicated I had little ability to cope–much less offer help to others.
Later that morning, after putting Michael on the bus, I sat at the kitchen table lingering over a cup of coffee. We had recently moved him to Heathwood Hall, a private school with smaller classes. My head felt tight from lack of sleep, so I took some aspirin to stave off another headache.
The migraines began the week before when a mother of one of Michael’s playmates called. She said, “I’m sorry to tell you this, Gail, but Michael is eating us out of house and home. He went through our weekly stash of cookies and had a bad attitude when I confronted him with it. Maybe he and Billy should take a break for a while.”
Glancing down at a stack of disorganized papers, I realized that I hadn’t yet looked at Michael’s school pictures. Opening the envelope, I saw signs of depression that I hadn’t noticed before—lackluster, soulless eyes, frowning brows, and limp slumped shoulders.
Suddenly, the phone rang. A voice said, “Hi, Gail. This is Margaret Adams, the headmistress at Heathwood Hall. Do you have a minute to talk?”
Breaking into a cold sweat, I said, “Sure, how can I help you?”
She said, “Gail, Michael is still disturbing the class and not turning in his homework.”
I said, “Margaret, we’ve tried everything. I hoped that a new environment would help. I’m going to seek professional help.”
“Gail, I’m glad you’re taking that step.”
After hanging up the phone, Linda Welsford, a close friend, happened to stop by. Linda and her husband Glen, a Presbyterian minister, had ties to an evangelical outreach organization. As I discussed Michael, she could see my fragile state.
Linda said, “Gail, I hope you won’t be offended, but I’d like to suggest some reading.”
“Sure, Linda, what is it?”
She said, timidly, “Well, it’s in the New Testament. The Gospel of John.”
The morning before, in a dream-like state, I had an inchoate sense of future harmony. Only with Linda’s suggestion did it come to my sentient awareness. I deflected it, saying, “Thank you, Linda, but I’ve lost all interest in God.”
Unbeknownst to her, later that afternoon, I picked up the Gospel of John and started to read. Passages accusing the Jews of killing Jesus and calling them children of the devil confirmed my suspicions about Christian anti-Semitism. Whatever the nature of my unarticulated hope, it vanished on the spot. Utterly disheartened and in tears, I rushed to the Christian bookstore, genuinely hoping to find a different understanding of the text.
In my browsing, I found, instead, Philip Yancey’s book, Where is God When it Hurts? Seeing a brilliant red rose on the cover, I expected a trite treatment of a very serious issue. In it, however, Yancey—scholar, mystic, and philosopher—presents the Christian theology of pain in a clear yet nuanced manner. This led to me to compare Jewish and Christian views on the character of God, suffering, and evil. Over the next two years, a force drew me outside of myself, or perhaps towards my true self, into the life of God.
My shocking radical turn, the most practical decision of my life, entailed breaking away from the only reality I had ever known, the collective conversation of which I was a part. It forced me to let go of expectation, ego, and the conventional wisdom of a lifetime. From the inside, I see my epiphany as a seamless progression of values and disposition, but for my loved ones it remains a complete anomaly.
During the time my faith was incubating, I experienced crushing anxiety due to conflict and indecision. Reflecting on how I came to resolve these doubts, I see a pattern of dissonance and renegotiation. I will always understand the Jewish sensibility—that of a minority group trying to protect itself. Paradoxically, as I contemplated leaving a civilization always on the edge of survival, pride in my identity became strengthened and chiseled, honed as if on a rough-edged stone. Without pretense, I can state that the Jewish mystique, with its timeless unfolding in the blood stream of history, is writ large upon my psyche.
Over several years, I worked through reservations by praying, reflecting, and assimilating small increments of faith at a time. A too-sudden conversion would have assaulted my psyche like a giant wrecking ball. Though the insights came gradually—some scarcely apprehended and others denied, they conquered my being with stellar, steadfast force. I experienced complete transformation and a reorientation of my soul.
Gail Baker is an author and progressive Jewish convert to Christianity and member of Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Columbia, S.C. She blogs at acongregationofone.com